The Gathering, Australia's biggest kink 'conference' was held in Sydney over the long weekend. Offering 'workshops' on everything from spanking to electroplay (the most popular seminar of the weekend according to organisers), the event is designed to teach people how to 'play' safely and provides an opportunity for newcomers to dip their toes into the water of the kink community. With almost double the number of tickets sold as for the previous event, organisers believe its popularity stems from Fifty Shades of Grey. "People have started coming out of the woodwork," said Miss Dee, The Gathering hostess and resident dominatrix. "Around 60 per cent [of participants] have been in the community for less than a year."
But kink is not for the faint-hearted. It's not every day that you overhear a conversation like this: after exchanging pleasantries, girl one asked girl two which session she was going to next. Girl two was going to the session that involved - there's no delicate way to put - hand penetration. "Yay, me too! See you in there," replied the first.
"It's just normal people wanting to learn more," said one 35 year-old participant, Jane* who began exploring the scene a year ago. 25 year-old Kate* agreed. "An inaccurate representation is that people who are into the scene [are seen] as having psychological issues… [But] it's lovely people who are open-minded and wanting to learn more about sensations, the psychology and emotional [impact]."
They say a common misconception is that kink is about sex, instead of sensation. In fact, the participants I spoke with have all had kink 'relationships' without sex being involved. 23 year-old Jo*, who has been in the scene for two years, explained that, for her, sex and submission are separate. In fact, she has never had sex with or kissed the 'dominant' who whips her. Rather than sexual relief, being flogged provides a rush of serotonin and dopamine; a sensation she likens to the experience of endurance athletes. "I bliss out from the endorphins - I don't want sex after."
With implicit risk involved in this sort of play, there has to be a deep respect between both people and trusting herself in the hands of another heightens the intensity, she said. "I wouldn't do it with someone I didn't know or trust."
Interestingly, despite her willingness to be whipped, her pain-threshold is low ordinarily. "I don't take pain well," she said. "I hate getting a paper cut… but this is [different]. It's a boundary to push. It's part of a power exchange and It's so much of a release."
Having said that, there have been times when the pain is too much to bear. She has had one experience in the past when a 'dominant' did not stop when asked and says it reinforced the need to engage in sadism and masochism (S and M) only with people she trusts implicitly. With her current partner in kink, "I just call it [when it's too much] and that's OK."
On the subject of pain, she and the others point out that the intention underpinning kink is not inflicting harm on one another. "It's not about violence, it's about learning to push your boundaries in a controlled, consensual way," Jane said.
They are interesting insights into why someone enjoys inflicting or receiving pain and are contrary to the popular belief that such events are essentially a free for all
These beliefs mean the topic of kink is a problematic one for many. This is not lost on those in the scene. "I grew up with the good girl/bad girl mentality," said Jane who was raised in a strictly religious houselhold. "As I got older, I realised it is my life and I was able to explore more and enjoy the pleasure [S&M] brings."
She would never disclose her interest to her family though. "They would be like 'I'm going to pray for you.'" Similarly, Jo has tried to tell her mum twice about her interests, but feels it would be too hard to explain that "it's not about sex". Keeping it secret can come with its own problems though. "I turned up at work with bruises and one girl pulled me aside because she thought I was getting abused and my boyfriend was beating me up." But, Kate, whose partner is 'vanilla' meaning he isn't into so-called kink, said although she has not told her family, her friends know what she gets up to. "They say 'as long as you're happy that's OK'. I'm not ashamed - that's me."
And it seems with the popularity of a book like Fifty Shades, people are becoming more accepting in general.
While the event organisers are happy Fifty Shades of Grey means more people are interested in the scene, they do not feel it is an accurate representation of their community. The book is "Twilight fan fiction with a bit of BDSM thrown in," said fetish author Laura Antoniou, who was speaking at the conference. "It is constructed on the trope of romance novels. She is virginal, he is a bad boy… she fascinates and captures him with her innocence and changes him… and they run off into hetero-normative bliss."
That the characters in Fifty Shades "connect despite the BDSM" sets up kink as a 'problem,' Antoniou said. But, she pointed out, the behaviour of the protagonist in the book "is stalkerish - he tracks her - this is not the mark of a dominant, [it is] is the mark of an insecure, domineering man." Despite this and apart from being "really badly written" Miss Dee acknowledged, "After reading it people say 'now I understand [why you're into it]."
*Not their real names.